St. Basil softball advances to state semis for the first time

Together as one: From left, Northeast Philly residents and St. Basil Academy softball players Amanda Clark, Nichole Eberhard, Myranda Gormley and Abby Carter have their team two wins away from a state championship.

At one point, Steve Sonneborn had his doubts, but they’re gone now.

Being two wins away from a state championship will have that effect.

Sonneborn, the head softball coach at St. Basil Academy in Jenkintown, has his team two wins away from a PIAA Class AA state title. The Panthers got here via a wild, late 4–3 victory in the District 1 title game on a late home run by freshman shortstop Carly Jensen, and the engine of this team has kept on humming ever since.

First was an opening-round, eight-inning 1–0 victory over Palmerton, of Carbon County in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a contest that was also won by Jensen, this time on a walkoff single. Then, 24 hours later, senior pitcher and Bustleton native Nichole Eberhard, who had fired eight shutout innings against Palmerton, coasted once more in a 5–1 quarterfinals win over Kutztown.

The Panthers, who have 10 players from Northeast Philly on their roster, have found magic at precisely the right point in time and will try to punch their ticket to next Friday’s state title game on Monday evening in Allentown (6 p.m. first pitch), where the team will take on Wilkes-Barre’s Holy Redeemer, the top seed from District 3.

“Before the season, I believed we could do some damage in states,” Sonneborn said. “But when it started, we were so up and down to the point where it just put a lot of doubts in my mind. We made a lot of mistakes and gave away extra outs in the beginning, but we’ve stopped that. We kind of got on this roll, and they aren’t scared or nervous playing on this stage. The girls are playing with a lot of confidence.”

This is St. Basil’s third trip to the state tournament, and prior to Wednesday, the program had never won a game there (the Panthers exited in the first round a year ago). But now they are on the precipice of competing for a state title, and many local girls are responsible for that.

The Panthers (15–8) are exceptionally well-balanced in all facets of the game. Eberhard is locked in both in the pitching circle and at the plate; she’s hitting .327 out of the cleanup spot and has gone 9–3 with a 1.88 ERA and 69 strikeouts as a pitcher. The only other senior on the roster besides Eberhard is Myranda Gormley, a Rhawnhurst resident and centerfielder hitting .429 out of the two-hole whose next stop after softball ends will be Johns Hopkins University, where the valedictorian will study medicine in the hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

“Nichole and I have played against each other going back to seventh grade, so we’ve gotten to see each other grow as players,” Gormley said. “She has this determination to hit the spots she needs to, and when she is, it only helps us on defense because we can almost anticipate where the ball is going if it’s put in play.”

“It’s a big role to take on, but I can do it because I know the team is behind me no matter what,” said Eberhard, who will play softball next year at Chestnut Hill College. “I rely on power and speed, but if I can’t blow it by the hitter, I know the defense is there to help me, especially Myranda in center. I think for me personally, I’m taking last year’s loss as motivation to keep going to become state champions.”

Then there are the non-seniors who have stepped up, the ones who represent both the present and future of the St. Basil program. Jensen has caught fire, raising her average to .381 and accumulating big hit after big hit. The junior class, which comprises a majority of the roster, has been equally outstanding, with two Northeast denizens in particular.

First, there’s leadoff hitter, second baseman and Fox Chase native Abby Carter, who has been dynamite atop the Panthers order. Through Thursday’s game, Carter raised her average to an astounding .552. Getting on base roughly 60 percent of the time she comes to the plate causes a trickle-down effect to Gormley, Eberhard and Amanda Clark, a Bustleton native who started at first base before shifting to catcher when the team’s starter went down with a broken hand. Clark is the big-bopper of the lineup with four home runs and double the amount of RBI than anyone else on the team.

The Panthers can beat you with speed, power, small ball, strong pitching and great defense, which makes them a legitimate threat to capture an AA state title.

“Not only do we have great players with tons of speed, we also have girls who have a great connection with one another,” Clark said. “We trust each other, and we’re always talking during the game, helping one another and keeping everybody up. That’s something you need, a good, close-knit team to keep it going to stay alive in these types of tournaments.”

Added Carter: “We believe that we are very capable of winning. We have speed, great hitters, the fielders to back up our pitching. If we put it all together and continue to put forth our best effort, I think we will win.”

Winning a state title is anything but easy. Teams often know little to nothing about the next opponent, so they have to rely on what they know they do well. If St. Basil continues on that path and doesn’t get intimidated by the stage, which keeps getting bigger in each subsequent round, then the team likes its chances.

“Sometimes I think I put a little too much pressure on the girls,” Sonneborn said. “I’ve tried to get better at that, and now I just told them to go out, have fun and enjoy themselves in the moment. They seem to be a lot looser because of that. We worked hard all year to get to this point; we had our ups and downs, but we grew together as a team. If we play our game as we have been, we can compete with anyone.

“We have the ability, and we take pride in putting pressure on teams by playing small ball plus a couple of boppers hitting the ball. Our goal is to win one at a time; we want to succeed, and yeah, I believe this team is capable of going even further.” ••

Junior second baseman Abby Carter, of Fox Chase, is batting well over .500 out of the leadoff spot while playing a strong second base.

Bustleton native and St. Basil junior Amanda Clark is the team’s big bopper in the middle of the order. Not only that, but Clark shifted from first base to catcher when an injury dictated her to step up and help her team.

Nichole Eberhard, of Bustleton, is the team’s other senior. She is St. Basil’s top pitcher, and has given up just one run in 15 innings thus far in the state tournament.

Senior Myranda Gormley, of Rhawnhurst, is the team’s two-hole hitter and centerfielder. She’s also her class valedictorian and is bound for Johns Hopkins University to study medicine.

St. Basil Academy in Jenkintown is riding a hot streak into the state semifinals. The Panthers won a District 1 Class AA title and followed it up with 1–0 and 5–1 victories in the first and quarterfinal rounds of the state playoffs. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS